The White House released its fiscal year budget request for NASA on Monday, Feb. 2, and this amounts to $18.5 billion. Included in this allocation is a $30 million budget for the development of a mission to Europa, the sixth-closest moon of Jupiter.
Planetary scientists have been interested in Europa since the Galileo orbiter revealed that the icy moon may be hiding an ocean of salty water beneath its icy shell. Scientists also hail this extraterrestrial world as the most likely candidate in the solar system to have the ability to support life besides Earth.
The moon possibly contains three times the volume of water found in the Earth's oceans and because water is associated with life on Earth, astrobiologists think that the oceans in Europa offer a good habitat for living organisms to thrive.
The U.S. space agency has been looking at the potentials of the Europa mission for a while now. In 2014, it received a $100 million from Congress to start preliminary work on such mission. The new proposed budget though bolsters focus for this mission dubbed as the Europa Clipper as it signals commitment from the White House that was missing before.
NASA chief financial officer David Radzanowski told reporters in a conference call on Monday that the requested $30 million that will be used for preliminary studies into the Europa mission will be in addition to the $100 million the congress has given.
"For the first time, the budget supports the formulation and development of a Europa Mission, allowing NASA to begin project formulation, Phase A," reads [pdf] the summary of the proposed NASA budget.
The Europa Clipper will be the U.S. space agency's attempt to understand the habitable potentials of Europa and will likely involve a spacecraft that would orbit Jupiter and do fly-bys of Europa rather than orbiting or landing a probe on the surface of the moon itself, which will make the mission safer and more cost effective.
Europa is associated with a harsh radiation environment that can pose dangers for spacecraft. The U.S. space agency will select the instruments for the spacecraft this year with the aim of launching it in the mid-2020s.
"This is a big deal," said Europa Clipper probe concept pre-project scientist Robert Pappalardo. "We're moving toward the next phase, where you're a real mission. It's just thrilling after 15 years of pushing for it."